Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Salmon Story II

A few things have changed since I wrote this story almost 9 years ago but not much.

Salmon Story II                                                                                  November 2, 2002
Joanne Hedou

I’m driving towards Duvall, Washington where I worked for a short while in a small environmental organization called Washington Trout. The group is headed by Kurt Beardslee, a Washington native who twelve years ago took up the leadership of a small group of fisherman distressed to see that nothing that was being done to save wild fish was working. Since then, I believe Kurt’s every living breath has cycled some portion of his tireless energy to see salmon and other wild fish come back to the streams, lakes  and rivers of  Washington State. Whether or not it is working, Kurt is breathing deeply every minute.

It is November 2 of one of the driest falls the northwest has had in years. There is a bridge over the Snoqualmie River just before you enter Duvall. Under the bridge there is a grove of agricultural poplar; a new crop raised by lumber companies for wood chips. These large companies have clear-cut so much forest that they are looking for new ways to create wood and the farmers that used to farm this valley have had their small-scale food and hay growing operations supplanted by agribusiness. So, the corporate timber harvesters are trying to turn the fast growing poplars into agricultural crops. The leaves of these trees should be bright yellow but they’re not. They’re brown and curled up at the edges. They look dead. They could be dead.

As I drive over the bridge I look down and can barely see the Snoqualmie. Poplars need a lot of water. That’s what the agribusiness foresters thought they would get for free when they planted these trees in the mile-wide floodplain—lots of free water. But nature doesn’t work for them and the Snoqualmie is withdrawing her gift this year. I halfway hope these trees are dead before they are harvestable.

I had emailed Kurt (through his office manager-Kurt doesn’t have much time for email reading) earlier in the week asking where I could see some salmon spawning. The office manager told me Kurt said to look where the Tolt River enters the Snoqualmie River. I turn right after I cross the river and head south on Route 203 along the Snoqualmie towards Carnation. Everywhere I can get a glimpse of the river it is low. It’s been a much drier year than I had thought viewing it mostly in the more built-up suburbs where I live.

I turn into the road to McDonald Park, a campground and picnic area located at the confluence of the Tolt and the Snoqualmie. In the 15 years since I have been visiting this park, I have never seen many people here but today the parking lot is almost full. Most of the cars seem to belong to mountain bikers who cross the suspension bridge over the Snoqualmie to ride in the logged-off hills on the other side of the river. Yet another place that used to be a secret that has been discovered. I think, “Too bad.” But the campground is mostly empty.

I access the banks of the Tolt through an empty campsite. At the mouth where it opens to the Snoqualmie there is a huge accumulation of gravel. The largest of the cobblestones seems to be about 8 inches in diameter. The size of the stones a river carries indicates the power of the river. It might even be possible to conjure an inverse mathematical relationship between the size of boulders a river carries and the size of the fish that will survive in it but I don’t need to. Considering that some rivers carry boulders as large or larger in diameter than my 5’6” height, the Tolt is not a super powerful river but a river that can carry boulders of that size is not very hospitable for spawning salmon. I learned at Washington Trout that the Tolt is the right size for some pretty big fish. I also learned that some research shows that a small trace of a river’s scent may reach the ocean and the young salmon who left the river four or five years before may look for that natal scent when they are ready to return. 

On the bank, I pronate my toes over the many cobbles. I can smell dead fish but don’t see any yet. All along the edges of the river four-foot tall engineers have been working throughout the summer as their parents sat in lawn chairs under trees watching them. There are circles of rocks, side channels with levee systems and deep pools surrounded by larger rocks. If the youthful engineers were to come back now they would say their damming efforts had been a big success. But they would just be being fooled inversely like the poplar farmers who thought they could count on the river. In a normal year these mini-Coulee-dams would now be obliterated by the higher waters of fall and all of the carefully placed rocks would be resorted according to systems long ago established by nature.

As I walk up the Tolt from the Snoqualmie, I see the first dead Chinook. It is about forty inches long and it has an adipose fin on its back which means it’s a wild, not hatchery fish. I see three more carcasses of which one more has the fin and the others are too decomposed to tell. I walk back down the Tolt and up the Snoqualmie and see another carcass on the Tolt and seven on the Snoqualmie. Most of them are the same size but are too decayed for me to see whether they have the fin. I don’t see any live spawning salmon.

Two girls about 7-8 years old are throwing rocks into the river. I’m urban enough to be cautious about approaching them. I’m a mother and don’t believe kids should talk to strangers—even me whom I know they are perfectly safe talking to. So I try to walk by them, but one of the girls talks to me.

“We’re on our second night here. It was really cold last night. We came down to the river to get some wood and we didn’t find any. This is all there was.” She says, waving her hand disappointedly over the still frosty, shaded banks.

“Oh.” I say non-committally, still wondering how not to encourage her.

“These are tide pools. See the tide pools.”

She says; pointing at all the circles and channels created by her four-foot predecessors.

“Oh!” I say again not wanting to disabuse her of her illusions but wanting to tell her that this is a river and those can’t be tide pools. I want to tell her about the great power of the river that can carry all of these rocks here. I don’t want to venture further into conversation but I want her to see something of what is real here, so I ask,

“Have you seen any fish?”

“No we haven’t seen any fish but that’s why we’re throwing rocks into the river to make them come.”

I want to ask her if they have noticed all of the dead fish but I think if I say anything about them it could trigger the “eeewws and ughs” of the grossed out reactions that most suburban kids have to anything natural and fetid. I think this particular kid might not but I don’t want to take a chance. I have no right to destroy the girls’ mindless idyll by the river.  So I just say,

“Well that might make them come or that might make them not come.” And I walk past her and her friend. 

Then I hear from behind me as I walk away into the sun her little voice saying,

“By.” to me; and then yelling down the river,

“C’mon salmon! C’mere salmon!”

And I am struck with the elegance of the sunny afternoon and two children throwing rocks. I didn’t say salmon to her. I said fish. Somehow she knows there are supposed to be salmon here. Somehow she has been inculcated with the lore of the contemporary environmental credo that is taught to most kids in the Pacific Northwest.  I wonder how it looks in her mind. To most modern kids the natural world is much like an extension of the antiseptic zoos they are used to seeing wild animals in. To others, who may have never been to even a zoo, the natural world is all pictures and television shows—if that. I wonder what level of awareness her call to the salmon comes from but it doesn’t really matter. The way it sounds to me is this wonderful, high, scratchy little girl voice calling down the river and the tunnel of time to all of those salmon that should be coming back up this river. When she says again,

“C’mon salmon! C’mere salmon!”

I immediately see small Native American children and, in my very inappropriately-educated Caucasian mind, a short, stout, barefoot northwest Native American in a Haida hat and Chilcoot blanket standing there by the river with us. All of the cobbles are dead salmon and our feet are slipping all over their dead bodies and the stench is unbearable.  And we all are saying,

“C’mon salmon! C’mere salmon!”

I think of how the romantic images of the contemporary white world have expropriated and distorted what they think are the idyllic images of Native Americans and woven them into a fantasy of pure natural spirituality and a connection with nature that is unattainable for the flawed modern human. I also think, in reality, people of native cultures don’t own spirituality and connections with nature anymore than I own Fisher Price because I am white. To many native peoples I’m sure the rocks, the animals and the trees were as utilitarian as tinker toys were to me and my son when he was young. But that little girl brings me back to when I was four and sat by a small stream next to route 128 outside Boston catching frogs. I feel like turning around and calling with her:

“C’mer salmon! C’mon salmon!”

So I do in my mind because it doesn’t matter what we think we are saying or what we think Native Americans were saying or who says it. We are all linked to that primeval world where millions of salmon came up this river every year for 10,000 years and we should all be calling them.

“C’mer salmon! C’mon salmon!”

I drive back through Duvall. I stop at Washington Trout to tell Kurt what I saw but he isn’t there. I drive back over the Snoqualmie and past the poplars.

That night my friend tells me that he heard the local NPR host, Steve Scher interviewing a meteorologist from the University of Washington. The meteorologist said there is a big low front looming in the distance and it will rain next week. If it does, that will bring more water to the rivers, and if there is more water in the rivers the salmon will come back. Whether or not it does rain, doesn’t matter to me. In my opinion northwesterners have an inverse relationship with rain. They hate it when it’s here but are afraid when it’s gone. Either way, next weekend I think everyone—including Kurt and all the other people he has inspired and all the people who have just moved here and all of the people who have lived here and watched the rivers change and the land change—should go down to the river and we should all just yell and stamp our feet and think of the echo of that small voice and say,

“C’mer salmon! C’mon salmon!”

And hold our hands up to the sky and the air and whatever comes, comes but we should invite it and keep saying,

C’mer salmon! C’mon salmon!”… and saying it and saying it.